In just five months since their first market launch at University of Carolina, Greensboro, dockless bike sharing company LimeBike has amassed over 300,000 registered users in 20 city and university markets.
Bike share programs with parking stations known as docks charge cities up to $5,000 per bike for installation and maintenance. This also results in limited docks and fewer accessible bikes. Eliminating docks makes it free for cities to implement bike sharing programs, and by doing so, LimeBike has seen massive growth in its national markets, with Seattle being the leader, according to co-founder and CEO Toby Sun.
What began as two college friends’ idea to make American bike sharing more affordable and accessible became a multi-million-dollar business with plans for global expansion.
After working together for three years at Kinzon Capital doing international investments, co-founders and University of California Berkeley alumni and Brad Bao and Toby Sun realized the demand to expand dockless bike sharing in the United States.
“Brad and I first started as two crazy guys trying to figure out what can we do in the U.S. market,” Sun said. “We did investments in both the U.S. and Chinese markets and we got an opportunity to build our knowledge base by learning the two.”
The first bike sharing program began in 2007 in Paris and since then, the programs have become increasingly popular in international markets. China alone currently has 16 million bikes deployed from 70 companies.
LimeBike is learning from the global experience of dockless bike sharing, according to Director of Marketing and Communications Jack Song. The Asian market provides a prime example for the company to localize to the United States with adjustments to mechanics in the bikes like basket and pedal size and tires that do not go flat.
It has been a six-year journey in creating the business for Sun, Bao, and co-founders Charlie Gao and Adam Zhang. Yet in less than a year of operation, LimeBike has managed 50 percent growth on a weekly basis, according to Song.
At their current growth rate and if expansion is executed according to the company’s plans, the business will serve as the largest dockless bike share program in North America by this time next year.
By the end of 2017, LimeBike plans to increase their bicycle fleet by 50,000-70,000 in over 30 American locations with more than $62 million in total funding and is projecting global expansion in 2018.
The bright green fleet are eight-gear bicycles with a GPS system, 3G connectivity, a basket, solar panel, and an anti-theft lock with an alarm system. The price to ride is set at $1 for 30 minutes or 50 cents for students.
GPS tracking through the smartphone application allows riders to locate the nearest bike to their specific location and be able to pick up and drop off bikes virtually anywhere.
Accessibility was the key for Sun in the startup stages of the business. As an avid bike rider as a child and throughout his college years, he found it impossible to transport a bike in high density areas.
Sun explained that the LimeBike team faces barriers every day with increasing accessibility, both with mechanics and allowing customers to obtain a ride in as few taps as possible on the application.
“A lot of people think bikes are a no-brainer. It turns out this is not the case especially for hardware. We’ve done many variations and adjust to customers’ needs,” Sun said.
University of Washington is one of eight universities that currently serve as a market for the company.
“You can’t go more than a couple of blocks in Seattle without seeing a LimeBike,” said University of Washington student Thu Aung said. “They’re becoming a household name at this point.”
The Seattle market alone has seen multiple expansions since LimeBike’s launch in July 2017 when 500 bikes were deployed. One month later the fleet grew to 1,000 and currently there are 2,500 operational bicycles in the greater Seattle area.
“I have been obsessed with this great city, observing so many kinds of people applying to our Seattle office, Seattle operations team, and a lot of young professionals riding our bikes increasing green transportation and changing the landscape,” Sun said.
In March of this past year, Seattle’s former docked bike sharing program, Pronto, was shut down due to low ridership and high costs of expansion for the city to install new parking stations. This left a hole in the market for competitors who were willing to troubleshoot its flaws.
“Both the city and LimeBike have the intent to do better,” Sun said. “Seattle was a stand out market with their commitment to working on bike projects. We can definitely do better than what Pronto has done before, we overcome a lot of challenges that they had faced: coverage, bike deployment, and mobility.”
Sun explained that LimeBike provides anonymous data to the cities they are employed in. The data notes where riders pick up and drop off bikes as well as where they ride and what are popular routes to allow those cities to know in what areas to increase accessibility for commuters.
Seattle neighborhoods that have seen high ridership had never before been considered areas with mass demand for greater bike access. Sun used Columbia City and the University of Washington as examples of places the city is looking into expanding bike lanes and developing safer infrastructure for bikers.
“We want to provide as many bikes as Seattle needs. This is a huge market with so many demands, it can easily fit 20,000 bikes if not more, but we are taking a careful approach and expanding by demand,” Sun said.
LimeBike has now provided over half of a million trips total in all 20 nationwide markets and numbers are likely to rise as they plan to launch in one or two new markets per week for the remainder of 2017, according to Song.
Responding to the company’s incredible success, Sun offers advice on what he has taken away from being a young entrepreneur in an ever-expanding market.
“I think this is a great era in time for entrepreneurs,” Sun said. “Technology has been evolving so fast and there are so many things we can improve for people and for enterprises. If new professionals want to create their own business this is the time. Find out what motivates you and what you can do better based on your own story.”